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Found 970 Collections

 

Local Materials: Yup'ik Ingenuity

Coming soon!

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
1
 

Herbert Bayer

Herbert Bayer (American, born Austria, active Germany and USA, 1900–1985) was a student and teacher at the Bauhaus. This famous German art and design school, which operated from 1919 to 1933, sought to integrate art, design, and daily life. At the Bauhaus, Bayer experimented with geometry, photomontage, and functional typography to help forge a new approach to graphic design. He applied Bauhaus theories of art and design to commercial practice and promoted the Bauhaus legacy to the public during a prolific career spanning over six decades and two continents.

As a student during the early years of the Bauhaus, Bayer utilized hand-drawn letters and basic geometry to create posters, postcards, and murals. In 1925, he became a "young master" at the Bauhaus and established a modernized print shop in the school's new building in Dessau. Here, he deployed photography and machine-based printing to promote the school and its products, such as furniture, housewares, and wallpaper.

After leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, Bayer worked in Berlin and in 1938 he left Germany for New York City. He eventually moved to Aspen, Colorado, a town he helped transform into a thriving cultural center. In the United States, Bayer created information graphics, books, advertisements, exhibitions, architecture, and magazine layouts for diverse clients, and he pioneered the field of corporate design.

This exhibition marks the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, in 1919.

Many of the objects displayed in this exhibition, including all the works from the Bauhaus period, have been generously loaned by Merrill C. Berman. In 2015, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum acquired over 500 pieces documenting Bayer's later career, made possible through a gift from the Taub Foundation. They are presented here to the public for the first time.

Cooper Hewitt Education Department
56
 

Willi Smith

Willi Smith (1958-1987)

Willi Smith was an African American fashion designer whose street wear line known as WilliWear was and experiment of democracy in fashion. WilliWear designs were known to be bold, blurring the lines between high and low culture, and his work often involved collaborations with other artists and designers. The openly gay designer's career was cut short when he died in 1987 from complications from HIV/AIDS.

This collection is a representation of the 2020 exhibition Willi Smith: Street Couture at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, which features over 200 pieces from Smith’s work and career and his numerous collaborations with artists, dancers, choreographers, graphic designers, architects, and more. The works on view include video, sketches, patterns, photographs, and garments.

Cooper Hewitt Education Department
67
 

Uncovering America: Faces of America/Portraits

What is a portrait? What truths and questions does a portrait communicate?

What might a portrait express about the person portrayed? How does it reflect the sitter’s community, setting, family, or friends? What does the portrait reveal about the artist?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States.

National Gallery of Art
4
 

Uncovering America: Manifest Destiny and the West

In what ways was the US settled and unsettled in the 19th century?

What role did artists play in shaping public understandings of the US West?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States.

National Gallery of Art
4
 

Which One Doesn't Belong

This collection includes digital museum resources and models the listening and speaking strategy Which one Doesn't Belong.  The collection can be copied and adapted for use in your own classroom. 




#EthnicStudies


Jennifer Smith
8
 

Uncovering America: Gordon Parks Photography

How does Gordon Parks use photography to address inequities in the United States?

How do Gordon Parks’s images capture the intersections of art, race, class, and politics across the United States?

What do photographs in general—and Gordon Parks’s photographs more specifically—tell us about the American Dream?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States.

National Gallery of Art
4
 

Exploring Ava DuVernay's "Selma": History as Visual Culture

The guiding questions of this Learning Lab are

  • What is visual art’s connection to historical events? Why is it important that we recognize these connections?
  • What does studying art add to our understanding of historical events and time periods?

The goals of this Learning Lab are

  • Bridge the gap in understanding between art analysis and historical analysis
  • Explore the inherent ties between art pieces and their surrounding historical context
  • Introduce the foundations of formal art analysis and develop close looking skills for visual art pieces

If you are new to Learning Lab, visit https://learninglab.si.edu/help/getting-started to learn how to get started!

#NPGTeach


Special thanks to National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the National Museum of American History (NMAH), Smithsonian Folkways, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for inspiring this learning lab and for their resources.

Keywords: Portraiture, African American, American, Selma, Alabama, visual art, Civil Rights Movement, United States, visual literacy

Ashleigh Coren
45
 

Medieval Manuscript

Collection of Medieval Manuscripts from anywhere in the world. 

Ty Torrence
7
 

The Third Dimention

A collection of sculptures created with various material. 

Larry Johnson
8
 

Black Art History

Artists to support Black (Art) History Month, February

Jamie Cosumano
29
 

The Haida People and Their Culture

By Jeane Breinig (Haida), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

It’s an endless cycle – gathering food, putting it up, sharing it among the people. Subsistence is fundamental to our being, even for city-dwellers. Every summer since the kids were little, we would return to Kasaan to join in harvesting activities with family and friends. Our traditions pass on through the foods, the seasons and the generations. I am Haida Yáahl-Xúuts (Raven–Brown Bear), of the Taslaanas clan (The Sandy Beach People) at Kasaan, Alaska. By the custom of our matrilineal society, I trace my descent and clan affiliation through my mother, her mother and a long line of Raven women going back through the centuries.

Haida identities are linked to the history of our people. Alaskan Haida look south to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada) as their ancestral homeland. The present villages of Masset and Skidegate were the only settlements that remained after a smallpox epidemic ravaged Haida Gwaii in 1862. Survivors from at least seventeen other communities found refuge there. Alaskan Haida are the descendants of emigrants who left Haida Gwaii sometime before European contact. Residents of Old Kasaan, one of the original Alaskan villages, moved to (New) Kasaan in 1902, and people from Howkan, Klinkwan, and other early Alaskan Haida settlements consolidated at Hydaburg in 1911. The distance from northern Haida Gwaii to Prince of Wales Island is not great, only about thirty-five miles. It is easy to imagine our forebears going across in their canoes: the Haida are justly famous as seafarers and boat builders. Our red-cedar canoes, some large enough to carry forty passengers, traveled up and down the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia and were sought in trade by Tlingit, Tsimshian and other peoples.

When the salmon start jumping in Kasaan Bay, it’s time to begin gathering the foods of our land. We pick sghiw (black seaweed) during the minus tides of May, when you can get out to the rocks where it grows. They spread it out on flat rocks to dry in the sun, took it home in gunnysacks, ground it up, and stored it as a savory food for winter. We love to eat it by the handful or sprinkle it on fish soup. As the summer goes on we fish for halibut and the different species of salmon that arrive in our waters. Sockeye from the Karta River, a staple of the diet in Kasaan, are smoked and preserved using an endless variety of family recipes. Clams, abalone, “gumboots” (chitons), crabs and shrimp are also harvested, and salmonberries, blueberries and huckleberries are picked as they ripen in succession. The men go deer hunting in the fall. Another staple is hooligan (eulachon) oil or “grease,” called satáw in the Haida language. Haida traditionally bartered for fish grease and soapberries from the Tsimshian in exchange for our dried seaweed and halibut. That kind of trading still goes on at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention every October, when everyone brings specialties from home to exchange for favorite foods from other places.

Family and Community

In a traditional Haida village, cedar-plank longhouses stood side by side, each paired with a tall pole displaying the crest animals of the clan members who resided there. An opening through base of the pole, representing the mouth or stomach of the lowest crest figure, served as the doorway to some houses. Like other southeast Alaskan peoples, the Haida are socially divided between Ravens and Eagles, each half (moiety) composed of numerous matrilineal clans. Traditional marriages were always between a member of a Raven clan and a member of an Eagle clan. The residents of a longhouse included multiple generations of male clan members and women of other clans who came there to live with their husbands.

Much of a child’s education was the responsibility of clan mentors outside the nuclear family: for a boy, this was his maternal uncle, and for a girl, her maternal aunt. On their pathways to adulthood, children received the names of ancestors, as well as piercings and tattoos that signified their clan and rank. Children still learn through watching and participating in the activities of the community. Our oral tradition is another participatory way of learning. Elders teach through stories, although the message may be indirect. If you seek an elder’s counsel, you might hear a tale about another place and time. It is up to you to think about the meaning and apply it to your own life.

The worst horrors of Haida contact with the West were waves of epidemic disease – smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, whooping cough and others – that consumed the aboriginal population, unchecked by natural immunity. Perhaps fourteen thousand Haida in the 1780s had withered to six hundred by 1915. It is hard to imagine loss on that scale, not only of life, but also of culture and heritage. Most of the clan leadership was gone, and consolidation of the widespread population into just a few villages almost destroyed the complex social system as it had functioned until then.

Haida oral literature is renowned for its epic tales of battles and migrations, transformations from animals to human beings and vice versa, and journeys to spirit worlds in the sky and underwater. Other Haida tales, especially Raven stories, are simply fun with a touch of mystery. Raven, the comical trickster is always in trouble. Elders say that he turned black by getting stuck in the smoke hole of a house and being too fat and lazy to escape.

Today there are fewer than a dozen fluent Alaskan Haida speakers. I am fortunate that my mother, Julie Coburn, is one of them. Her Haida name is Wahlgidouk, “Giver of Gifts,” meaning a person who brings in presents to be distributed at a ceremonial giveaway, or potlatch. She has been giving the gifts of language and literature throughout her life. Keeping her language was a kind of heroism under all the pressures for acculturation. Her parents, concerned about their children’s survival in Western culture, spoke Haida to them at home but asked them to answer in English. At her boarding school in Sitka, speaking Haida was harshly punished. But as an adult in her fifties, she recognized that the language was fading away, so she relearned it and now has had the good fortune also to teach others. She participated in the Haida Society for the Preservation of Haida Language and Literature and contributed to work accomplished at the Alaska Native Language Center when Haida elders developed a standardized writing system.

Ceremony and Celebration

In 1880, Chief Son-I-Hat built Neyúwens ("Great House") near Kasaan Bay, a mile from the location where New Kasaan was later founded. That structure, today called the Whale House, was restored in 1938 by Haida craftsmen working for the Civilian Conservation Corps. The restoration included the house’s crest pole and carved interior posts, which portray Coon-Ahts, a legendary figure who captured the monster Gonaqadate and put on his skin to hunt whales. Surrounding the house are additional totem poles brought over from Old Kasaan and restored, along with copies of several more. The Whale House is the only surviving traditional Haida clan house in Alaska.

The English word potlatch has been used for traditional Haida ceremonies that centered on feasting, dancing and the distribution of property by chiefs and other leaders. The Haida word is 'wáahlaal. The largest potlatches marked the completion of a new clan house or the death of a chief and succession of his heir. Chief Son-I-Hat, one of the wealthiest Haida leaders, hosted numerous potlatches before his death in 1912. Potlatches were outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884, and they were discouraged by Christian missionaries who came to the Haida region in the 1870s and 1880s.

Despite attempts to suppress of our traditional ceremonies, we still hold feasts and memorial potlatches, but now in transformed ways. Traditionally, potlatches represented a time for the deceased person’s clan to repay those from other clans who had helped them at the time of the death. In many respects, a potlatch can be viewed as a social occasion but with very formal aspects, acknowledging the sadness of the loss but also marking the end of mourning. Potlatches are also the time to repay those who have served as witnesses for naming ceremonies. By accepting a gift, recipients acknowledge that the name is legally granted within the traditional Haida system.

We are celebrating and revitalizing Haida culture in southeast Alaska. Teaching the language and rebuilding the Whale House are just a part of it. Every summer in Kasaan, a culture camp for the kids is held, with storytelling, dancing and subsistence activities. They want to learn and are so proud of their heritage. What does it mean to be Haida? The answer now is different from that of the past, obviously. We need to know our history and learn from it. We need to know our culture and draw strength from it. We need to make it work for us today.

Tags: Haida, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
20
 

Virginia History Tour

From Jamestown to the present, explore some of the people, places and events that tell the story of the history of Virginia. 

( Curated to support Virginia Standards of Learning for the  Virginia Studies course.)


Nancy Butler
56
 

Uncovering America: Immigration and Displacement

Why do people migrate to and within the United States?

How might works of art help us understand personal experiences of immigration and displacement?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States. Encourage creative, critical, and historical thinking in your students as you examine works of art from the country’s creation to the present day.


National Gallery of Art
4
 

Uncovering America: Activism and Protest

Why and how do people protest?

How might works of art show support or advocate for a cause?

How are people, communities, and events affected by works of art?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States. Encourage creative, critical, and historical thinking in your students as you examine works of art from the country’s creation to the present day.

National Gallery of Art
4
 

Uncovering America: Transportation

How does transportation affect our daily lives?

What can we learn about transportation and travel from works of art?

Discover compelling stories of creativity, struggle, and resilience in this new set of resources for K–12 educators featuring works of art that reflect the richness and diversity of the people, places, and cultures of the United States. Encourage creative, critical, and historical thinking in your students as you examine works of art from the country’s creation to the present day.

National Gallery of Art
4
 

Read Between the Brushstrokes: Using Visual Art as a Historical Source

This Learning Lab from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will explore the connection between visual art and history. 

When studying history, it is important to remember that all historical sources do not look the same. Visual art, being an active response to a stimulus, serves as a mirror to the contemporary landscape. Art engages in a conversation with history while acting as a visual expression of contemporary thoughts and ideas.

Through the visual art piece Ethiopia by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1921), students will learn more about the events and cultural context of the 1920s in America, including the Harlem Renaissance. Fuller's piece reflects the racial politics of the period, especially African Americans' quest for self identity. Ethiopia serves as a symbol of African Americans' identity exploration post-World War II and in the midst of the Pan-African movement.

The questions, prompts, and information provided in this Learning Lab will help students hone their skills in visual literacy competency. Students can use this Learning Lab collection to help sharpen their historical thinking skills and expand their conceptions of historical sources.

The guiding questions of this Learning Lab are

  • What is visual art’s connection to historical events? Why is it important that we recognize these connections?
  • How do contemporary events shape artists’ responses in their art making?
  • What does studying art add to our understanding of historical events and time periods?

The goals of this Learning Lab are

  • Bridge the gap in understanding between art analysis and historical analysis
  • Explore the inherent ties between art pieces and their surrounding historical context
  • Introduce the foundations of formal art analysis and develop close looking skills for visual art pieces

If you are new to Learning Lab, visit https://learninglab.si.edu/help/getting-started to learn how to get started!

National Museum of African American History and Culture
12
 

Tsimshian Bilingual Guide: Twining Cedar

Red cedar bark twined basketry is a distinctive Tsimshian art form. With the passing on of elder master artists and the demands of contemporary lifestyles, it became at risk. A handful of weavers today are working to master and revitalize twined cedarbark basketry, reconnecting with a proud heritage. In 2016, the Arctic Studies Center collaborated with The Haayk Foundation of Metlakatla to document the materials and techniques of cedarbark basketry. The project included a harvesting and processing workshop and a weaving workshop in Metlakatla, and a residency at the Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage where artists studied baskets from museum and private collections, practiced and refined weaving techniques, and taught museum visitors and school children about basketry.

Teaching was led by Haida master weaver Delores Churchill, who learned from master Tsimshian weaver Flora Mather, with assistance from her daughter Holly Churchill, an accomplished weaver. In addition to Metlakatla students, three advanced Tsimshian weavers participated in the project, sharing techniques learned in their families and communities and learning new ones: Kandi McGilton (co-founder of The Haayk Foundation), Karla Booth (granddaughter of Tsimshian master weaver Violet Booth) and Annette Topham (niece of master Tsimshian weaver Lillian Buchert). Metlakatla elder Sarah Booth, a fluent speaker of Sm’algyax (Ts’msyen), assisted Kandi McGilton in documenting indigenous basketry terminology for use in language classes.

The bilingual guide below pairs with a set of 15 instructional videos included here. The guide provides step-by-step details about cedarbark basketry from harvesting materials to twining techniques in Sm’algya̱x (the Tsimshian language) and English. A twined cedarbark basket from the Smithsonian collections is also included below.

Tags: Alaska, Native art, museum, education, Indigenous, Tsimshian, cedar, bark, Metlakatla, weaving, basket, David Boxley, Kandi McGilton, Delores Churchill, Karla Booth, Annette Topham, Holly Churchill, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
18
 

St. Lawrence Island Yupik Lessons: Language and Culture

The Alaska Office of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center hosted a St. Lawrence Island Yupik language and culture seminar in January 2012, bringing together seven fluent speakers: John Apassingok, Lydia Apatiki, Ralph Apatiki, Sr., Elaine Kingeekuk, Christopher Koonooka, Merlin Koonooka and Angela Larson. They met for five days to discuss Yupik objects in the Smithsonian exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska at the Anchorage Museum.

During the seminar, the St. Lawrence Island Yupik language was documented and language and culture teaching materials were written for use in schools and homes throughout Alaska and beyond. Twelve objects from the Smithsonian collections – with links below – are featured in the guide and lessons presented here. These resources pair with twelve video lessons that offer teachers, students, parents and lifelong learners access to the St. Lawrence Island Yupik language and lifeways.

Tags: Alaska, Native art, museum, education, language, Indigenous, St. Lawrence Island, Yupik, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
26
 

Salmon Give Life: Learning from Alaska’s First Peoples

There are five species of salmon in Alaska, and they are a vital food source for people living a subsistence lifestyle today and in the past. Alaska Natives determined that salmon skin, carefully processed, was a durable and waterproof material for clothing, and they used it to make bags, boots, mittens and parkas. Some artists continue to use this material in their work. The curriculum below consists of five activity-based lessons and will teach students about subsistence, with a focus on salmon, and how Alaska Natives utilize local resources to survive and thrive. The two videos referred to in curriculum Lesson 3 are provided below and are part of a 10-video set on this site in the Community Videos section, titled Sewing Salmon videos.

Tags: Alaska, Alaska Native, Indigenous, salmon, subsistence, traditional ecological knowledge, salmon skin, museum, museum objects, artifacts, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
7
 

Iñupiaq Lessons: Language and Culture

The Alaska Office of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center hosted an Iñupiaq language and culture seminar in January 2011, bringing together eight fluent speakers: Sylvester Ayek, Bernadette Alvanna-Stimpfle, Alvira Downey, Herbert Foster Sr., Willie Goodwin Jr., Jana Harcharek, Faye Ongtowasruk and Rachel Riley. They met for four days to discuss Iñupiaq cultural heritage objects in the Smithsonian exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska at the Anchorage Museum.

During the seminar, the Iñupiaq language was documented, including three different dialects, and language and culture teaching materials were written for use in schools and homes throughout Alaska and beyond. Six objects from the Smithsonian collections – with links below – are featured in the guide and lessons presented here. These resources pair with six video lesons that offer teachers, students, parents and lifelong learners access to Iñupiaq language and lifeways.

Tags: Alaska, Native art, museum, education, language, Indigenous, Iñupiaq, Inupiaq, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
14
 

Gifts from the Land: Lifeways and Quill Art of the Athabascan Peoples

Athabascan territories cover nearly half the state of Alaska, and these lands have diverse environments and wild resources that Athabascans respect, harvest and share. Wild resources are used for food and for raw materials to make things. For example, Athabascan peoples harvested porcupine to eat and also carefully processed its quills into a fine material to beautify special items, and some artists continue to use quill in their work. Artists today wrap, sew and weave quills onto clothing, bags and boxes made from tanned moose and caribou hide, like their ancestors did in the past.

  The curriculum below consists of five activity-based lessons and will teach students about the Athabascan peoples of Alaska: their languages, traditional values and knowledge, subsistence lifeways, and historic artifacts, with a focus on porcupines as a local resource and its quills as an artistic material. The three videos referred to in curriculum Lesson 4 are provided below and are part of a 8-video set on this site in the Community Videos section, titled Quill Art videos.

Tags: Alaska, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Athabascan, Dene, subsistence, traditional ecological knowledge, museum, museum objects, artifacts, quill, porcupine, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
11
 

Living Our Cultures: Research, Talks and Events at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

In 1994, the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center opened an Alaska office at the Anchorage Museum, and in opened the long-term exhibition Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. The exhibition – created by in-depth collaboration with Alaska Natives throughout the project – presents Indigenous voices, perspectives and knowledge through over 600 masterworks of Alaska Native art and design from the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian collections. Living Our Cultures serves as both a public exhibition and as an active resource for community-based research, talks and educational events, some of which are shown in the videos provided below. A major focus of ongoing work is collaborations with Alaska Native Elders, artists and culture-bearers on heritage documentation and revitalization projects, which are presented in the Community Videos section of this site. For more information, contact Aron Crowell (crowella@si.edu) or Dawn Biddison (biddisond@si.edu).

Tags: Alaska Native, Indigenous, heritage, art, collaboration, museum, objects, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
14
 

The Tsimshian People and Their Culture

The Tsimshian People and Their Culture

By David Boxley (Tsimshian), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Land, Sea, Rivers

Most Tsimshian live along the coast of northern British Columbia between the Nass River and Queen Charlotte Sound. The shores and islands are covered by northern rain forests of hemlock, spruce, fir, red cedar and yellow cedar, woods that were the basic raw materials of our culture. Tsimshian territory extends into the mountainous interior as well, following the valley of the Skeena River.

At one time at least eight thousand Tsimshian lived there, located in twenty winter villages and many seasonal camps. Today about thirty-five hundred live in seven Canadian towns. In 1862, a Tsimshian group led by an Anglican missionary, William Duncan, broke away from Fort Simpson to found a religious colony at Old Metlakatla. Twenty-five years later they moved again, building New Metlakatla on Annette Island, in southeast Alaska. Generations have lived there since, and that is the community in which I was born and grew up. I was very fortunate to be raised by my grandfather and grandmother, Albert and Dora Bolton, who gave me a strong foundation in our culture. When I was young they took me with them to their fish camps and on trips all over our island for subsistence activities.

Most people still rely a great deal on fish, seals, berries and other traditional foods, supplemented by commercial fishing and other sources of cash income. In historical times, the year’s food gathering began in spring when the ice broke up on the Nass River and the eulachon began running there. People traveled from their winter villages to harvest the fish in nets, drying some and fermenting and boiling the rest to extract the oil. Trade in eulachon grease, which no other people could produce in such quantity, was one of the sources of Tsimshian wealth and prosperity. In spring they also gathered seaweed and herring eggs, fished for halibut, and collected bird eggs and abalone. During summer and fall they relocated to fishing sites on the rivers to catch salmon with weirs and traps, drying and smoking them for winter. At the winter villages they gathered clams, cockles and mussels, and if you visit those old settlements today you can still see the mounds of discarded shells. At different times of the year they hunted seals, sea lions, deer, elk, mountain goats and mountain sheep.

Archaeological sites in Prince Rupert Harbour demonstrate that this way of life goes back at least five thousand years. Crest objects such as chiefs’ headdresses and masks are connected to origin stories and to the succession of clan leaders who have owned and passed them down to their descendants, along with name titles and titles to land. This is important in British Columbia where the Tsimshian Nation is attempting to reclaim territories that were taken by the Canadian government in the 1870s. Crest objects and the histories attached to them validate those aboriginal claims and link the people to specific places on the land where they lived and harvested food in the old days.

Family and Community

My people are divided into four equal groups. Each is a pteex (clan) with its own principal crest: Eagle (Laxsgiik), Raven (Ganhada), Wolf (Laxgibuu), and Killer Whale (Gisbutwada). Crests are symbols of matrilineal connection, so whatever pteex your mother comes from, you will be the same. Because clans marry out, your father will be from a different one of the four. Within each pteex are multiple lineages, like branches on a family tree. Eagle, Raven, Wolf, and Killer Whale each have as many as twenty-five subcrests, a few available that are to everyone in the clan and the rest limited to certain branches. As a Laxsgiik, I may use the Eagle, Beaver, and Halibut crests; I inherited other, more restricted crests from my close maternal ancestors.

Crests represent social identity and its corresponding rights and privileges. Crest images appear on robes, button blankets, headdresses and other regalia that people wear at potlatches to show their ancestry. They are shown on ceremonial drums, staffs and rattles; on dishes and ladles used for serving food at potlatch feasts; and on the totem poles, house fronts, posts and screens of traditional lineage houses.

If you could go back in time to visit a coastal Tsimshian village of two centuries ago, you would see our social system at work. The community is built along the shore, with palisades around back to guard against possible attack from land. You arrive by canoe and announce your person and business while still afloat, waiting for permission to land. Jumping ashore without proper protocol would have been life threatening in those days. Coming up from the beach in the company of your hosts, you see the big red-cedar longhouses, lined up in a row with their doorways facing the water. Each is home to thirty or forty people, most of them matrilineal relatives but including wives and children of other clans.

The village chief’s house is the largest and is located in a central position. Its painted front panels show his crests. The other dwellings are positioned in relation to the chief’s house according to the social ranking of their household heads. In front of prestigious homes are totem poles, carved with crest emblems and figures. Poles are sculptural narratives, telling who lives in a house, the ancient origin and recent history of their lineage, and the achievements of their deceased chiefs and nobles.

Entering one of the longhouses requires that you stoop down to pass through a low door, a vulnerable position for any would-be attacker. Depending on the status of the house, the interior is lined with one or more levels of wood-planked sleeping platforms, like wide bleachers that step down to the central fire pit. The platforms are divided into family living areas, cordoned off with mats or boards. The house chief and his family have a private apartment at the far end of the house, behind a carved and painted wooden screen. Inside the house you see lots of preserved food—dried salmon and halibut, bentwood boxes filled with fish oil, seal grease, and berries; containers of dried meat. All of this came from hunting and fishing territories owned by the house members.

The original Tsimshian way of life began to change when British, Spanish and American fur traders arrived in the late 1700s. The Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Simpson at the mouth of the Nass River in 1831, and missionaries of several Christian denominations came to work among the Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit people who had gathered near the fort for trade. The missionaries were successful at converting a large part of the population, which was in rapid decline as a result of smallpox and other new diseases. The people gave up their traditional beliefs, ended their ceremonies and even cut down many of the totem poles.

The converts who followed William Duncan from Fort Simpson to Old Metlakatla and then to Alaska were making a new start, trying to survive in a world that was rapidly changing. Now, more than one hundred years later, Metlakatla is a pretty distinctive place. Little about its everyday appearance would remind a visitor of the lifeways of the past, but we are still proudly Tsimshian, with a strong sense of our unique identity. Our language, Sm’Algyax, has changed from the way it is spoken in Canada, and unfortunately Metlakatla has only a few fluent speakers left, all elders. That frightens me, and I’ve been trying very hard to hold on to what I know and to learn more. We are who we are, but we are what our language makes us, too.

Ceremony and Celebration

Halaayt is spirit power, which comes from above. It gave chiefs and high-ranking people the knowledge and strength they needed to be leaders and to make good decisions. Halaayt enabled them to be the link between their people and the next world, where our ancestors dwell, and to communicate with the spirits of animals. The frontlet of a chief’s ceremonial headdress was a symbol of his halaayt. The face in the center was a crest, surrounded by abalone, sea lion whiskers, feathers and ermine fur. The chief’s headdress, woven robe and Raven rattle all represented his leadership and spiritual power.

Historically, potlatch feasts celebrated events and transitions in the community – death, marriage, the completion of a new house, the raising of a totem pole, or the settlement of a dispute between clans. The largest and most important of these feasts were memorial potlatches, when new chiefs were installed and took the names of their predecessors. Potlatches have always been based on a whole system of reciprocity. During the feast, hosts of one clan recognize and repay debts that they have incurred through services given to them by people of other clans, who come as guests.

Three things are essential to a potlatch. First, it has to be done publicly. The guests are there to serve as witnesses to what is taking place, and that is what makes it legal. Second, the hosts have to gift every guest in payment for his or her witness. Finally, everyone must be fed and fed very well. More than they need. The food they take home with them is another gift.

In 1982, I set out to organize Metlakatla’s first potlatch. For our community it would be the revival of a tradition that we had left behind over a century before in the historical move to Alaska. Many potlatches have been held in Metlakatla since then, and one of the largest was in 1994. It was originally planned as a celebration of my grandfather’s hundredth birthday, but it became his memorial after he passed away at age ninety-eight. I realized that in order for the potlatch to happen on the scale that I had hoped, it would have to include all four clans. Their involvement not only ensured the amazing success of the event but also paved the way for the future, because so many participated and learned so much. We fed a thousand people every evening, three totem poles were raised, and over fifty-five button robes were dedicated on the first night alone. I feel lucky to have come along when I did, at a time when it was right for these changes to take place. The way I grew up, and the gifts of language and culture that my grandparents gave me, prepared me for the journey.

 

Tags: Tsimshian Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
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